Despite a last-minute reprieve by a UAAP board that seems hell bent on proving they can still consistently come up with head scratching decisions, despite perplexing officiating that elevated phantom calls and indecisiveness to an art form, and despite the feistiness of a UE team that went toe-to-toe with the Green Archers for much of yesterday’s game, the DLSU Second Round Animo Machine is still on a roll.
And despite my unwavering faith in this La Salle team throughout all the first round heartbreaks, part of me is still amazed at how quickly Coach Juno Sauler has instilled not only a system that has produced a five-game winning streak, but more importantly the discipline and kind of fighting spirit in his players that separates contenders from pretenders.
But yesterday’s win didn’t come easy. As always, the first sign of trouble is when opposing teams come out more aggressive in crashing the boards. In the first quarter alone the Red Warriors won the rebounding battle 20-9, with most of the damage done on the offensive end, grabbing a total of 23 by the end of the game. I’ve seen several teams come out with extra tenacity in the rebounding department when facing La Salle, thus effectively neutralizing our running game and the open court offensive skills of players like Jeron Teng.
In addition to exerting more energy in their transition defense for most of the game, UE applied a lot of pressure even before the Green Archers could get the ball inbounds. What also concerned me was how our big men once again seemed to start out tentative in the post, with their defenders not yielding an inch in the battle for positioning down low. In general, the whole team’s offense took time getting in sync, which even prompted Coach Sauler to field in different combinations to try and get a good rhythm going.
Yet as UE was on the verge of pulling away, once again the Green Archers started slinging what has now become their most lethal arrow in the quiver, so to speak: Heart. It may sound like such an overused cliché, but this La Salle team has gradually become dangerous and formidable because they now have the kind of fight in them is characterized by unpredictability. You never know how they’ll pull it off or who will light the first spark, but you just know they will. This time it partly came from LA Revilla capping off a 9-2 run with a three point shot. It wasn’t a good first half at all, yet the Red Warriors only had a 5-point lead after two quarters.
After the now customary players’ huddle right before the second half, I knew the team was ready to play at the level we’ve all now become familiar with. Fighting for every rebound and contesting every shot. Jason Perkins banging inside and draining from the outside. Thomas Torres and Kib Monatalbo speeding up the game and fiercely pestering Roi Sumang. Arnold Van Opstal showing spurts of aggression. Almond Vosotros yet again defying taller and persistent defenders. And Jeron Teng coming alive in overtime and icing the game from the free throw line.
To some extent I can fight the urge to harp on how “untimely calls” kept quelling our team’s momentum, albeit temporarily, because in the extra five minutes UE clearly was no match for this La Salle team overflowing with fight and grit. It was definitely another huge win that now has us in second place. Another first round ghost laid to rest, and another game that proves this is definitely a team to be reckoned with.
Which is why I find it hard to call out players at this point, being proud of how far they’ve come. But at this point in the season, with two games left in the eliminations and the stakes getting higher, with our team on the cusp, with a coach that has never settled for anything less than excellence right from the start, and with a community of supporters that has now regained familiar swagger and pride, it’s time to lay it all on the line.
I’d like to see Arnold Van Opstal not only resume his level of play that began with that first round win against Ateneo, but enter the ranks of truly dominant big men. I’d like to see Norbert Torres consistently muster up the aggressiveness I know he has proven to possess in the past to make our frontline much more formidable than it already is. I’d like to see our already deep point guard rotation of Thomas Torres, Revilla and Montalbo be relentless in their respective styles of play to keep giving league superstars a run for their money. I’d even like to see role players like Gabby Reyes play as aggressive as he did in the preseason tournament. And I’d like to see better decision making and assertiveness right from the opening tip.
We’ve already seen the strengths of this La Salle team; in defense, offense, rebounding, and responding to a system of a focused and determined coach. But it goes without saying that the remainder of the season won’t be easy. Though the herd is thinning, there are other teams also hungry for glory and still in the thick of the fight. I believe in this team and what it can still accomplish. It will just take a little more to have a firmer grasp on the stuff champions are made of.
Part of me wants to apologize for maybe asking too much. But during every game, I see up close what the coaching staff and management expects of this team. I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t ask for what they know isn’t there. Greatness is beckoning. It’s time to heed the call.